What Elon Musk’s Shattered Windshield Can Teach Us About Mindset

How you think about your failure determines your future success.

Last week CEO Elon Musk helped unveil Tesla’s new Cybertruck. The Cybertruck’s abstract design won’t work for those needing a large flatbed for hauling, but Tesla’s innovative project is moving the needle for weekend warriors. Already 200,000 Tesla fans have put down a deposit to reserve their truck for 2021 delivery.

If you’re hauling large payloads, durability is crucial. Musk boasted the “truck” was “bulletproof.” When Tesla’s chief designer Franz Von Holzhausen threw “a metal ball at one of its armored windows, audible surprise could be heard as the glass smashed—twice.”

Musk exclaimed, “Oh my f------ God. Well, maybe that was a little too hard.”

Tesla has enjoyed success but has also left a trail of broken promises. Musk, like many entrepreneurs learns from mistakes. Musk graciously tweeted: “Franz throws steel ball at Cybertruck window right before launch. Guess we have some improvements to make before production haha.”

For an entrepreneur, setbacks and failure come with the job title. Successful entrepreneurs pick themselves up and go right back to figuring out how to best serve the needs of consumers.

Accepting responsibility is the only way to lasting change.

Shattered Windshields

Like Musk, many of us have “shattered a windshield.” A major presentation flops. A person rejects us. A poor decision puts our career plans in grave jeopardy. We’ve all been there.

When setbacks happen, perhaps you are consumed by thoughts such as “I’m a miserable failure” or “My life is ruined.” Do you wallow in those thoughts, fall into depression, or substitute addictive behavior for needed action?

How you think about your failure determines your future success. Research by famed Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck helps reveal how your fundamental mindset about your abilities and intelligence is a significant determiner of your success.

If you are wedded to the ideas that your level of intelligence is a fixed trait and that not much can be done to change the kind of person you are, you have a fixed mindset.

Dweck asks us to become more aware of our thinking. When facing a challenge, is your thinking dominated by questions such as, “Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” If so, you may have what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. In some form, those questions arise for most of us; but when they consume our attention, they may inhibit needed action.

“Challenges often frighten a person with a fixed mindset,” writes Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Why? If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your abilities are set in stone. If you apply effort yet fail, the failure says something permanent about your abilities. If you choke during a presentation, thoughts of how to improve are submerged in a tsunami of negative thinking.

Dweck explains how “believing that your qualities are carved in stone…creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” You don’t want to “look or feel deficient.” You cover up your errors and refuse to learn from them.

Secretly your suffering is immense. Going through life with a fixed mindset, Dweck writes, is like “always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens.”

A growth mindset is the alternative. Dweck explains,

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

If you are wedded to the ideas that your level of intelligence is a fixed trait and that not much can be done to change the kind of person you are, you have a fixed mindset. But, if you believe that you can “substantially change” both your level of intelligence and the kind of person you are, you likely have a growth mindset.

Fixed and growth mindsets lie on a continuum. Interestingly, you can have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and a growth mindset in another. In any part of your life, unquestioned fixed mindset beliefs bind you. Becoming aware of your own beliefs automatically begins the process of change. Identification with a growth mindset beliefs emboldens you.

A growth mindset doesn’t protect you from failure. “Even in the growth mindset,” Dweck writes, “failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.” Musk’s self-effacing shattered windshield Tweet indicates he is ready to learn.

Mindset and Leadership

As an entrepreneur, Musk has a growth mindset. As a leader, his mindset is questionable.

Dweck examined the research in the seminal leadership book by Jim Collins, Good to Great and found:

[Successful leaders] were not the larger-than-life, charismatic types who oozed ego and self-proclaimed talent. They were self-effacing people who constantly asked questions and had the ability to confront the most brutal answers—that is, to look failures in the face, even their own, while maintaining faith that they would succeed in the end.

If “the more self-effacing growth-minded people” are the most successful leaders,” how Dweck wondered, “did CEO and gargantuan ego become synonymous?” In a recent cameo on Rick and Morty, Musk was willing to satirize his ego. Dweck observes,

Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior, and the company is simply a platform for this.

To affirm they are superior, fixed-mindset leaders surround themselves with sycophants to clap for their often-disastrous schemes:

As these leaders cloaked themselves in the trappings of royalty, surrounded themselves with flatterers who extolled their virtues, and hid from problems, it is no wonder they felt invincible. Their fixed mindset created a magical realm in which the brilliance and perfection of the king were constantly validated. Within that mindset, they were completely fulfilled. Why would they want to step outside that realm to face the ugly reality of warts and failures?

Musk is well known for his emotional immaturity and explosive temper. He instills fear by firing people on the spot. At the Tesla factory, stories like this abound:

At about 10 o’clock on Saturday evening, an angry Musk was examining one of the production line’s mechanized modules, trying to figure out what was wrong, when the young, excited engineer was brought over to assist him.

“Hey, buddy, this doesn’t work!” Musk shouted at the engineer, according to someone who heard the conversation. “Did you do this?”

The engineer was taken aback. He had never met Musk before. Musk didn’t even know the engineer’s name. The young man wasn’t certain what, exactly, Musk was asking him, or why he sounded so angry.

“You mean, program the robot?” the engineer said. “Or design that tool?”

“Did you f------ do this?” Musk asked him.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to?” the engineer replied apologetically.

“You’re a f------ idiot!” Musk shouted back. “Get the f------ out and don’t come back!”

The young engineer climbed over a low safety barrier and walked away. He was bewildered by what had just happened. The entire conversation had lasted less than a minute. A few moments later, his manager came over to say that he had been fired on Musk’s orders.

This incident was not an aberration:

One manager had a name for these outbursts—Elon’s rage firings—and had forbidden subordinates from walking too close to Musk’s desk at the Gigafactory out of concern that a chance encounter, an unexpected question answered incorrectly, might endanger a career.

Be like Musk, the entrepreneur. Don’t be like Musk, the leader.

A Growth Mindset Is the Secret Sauce of Success

People who have a fixed mindset believe their work should be effortless; as a result, they expend little effort in what they do. When work is challenging, they quickly lose interest. When things go wrong, they tend to blame others. Whatever a person with a fixed mindset aspires to, they believe they have a natural-born aptitude or not. Practicing is for people who are not endowed with the talent they think they have.

To become more growth-minded, shine a light on your fixed mindset beliefs.

Compared to those with a fixed mindset, individuals with a growth mindset have entirely different beliefs about abilities and practice. They do not believe that anybody can accomplish anything. They understand natural ability is important. However, they also believe in devoting continuous and ongoing effort to develop their abilities.

If you’re a sports fan, you often see the impact of mindset. Some players, while blessed with physical gifts, never seem to improve. They are unwilling to devote the effort needed to improve their game. They have a fixed mindset. Those with a growth mindset may have lesser physical abilities but their game keeps improving.

To become more growth-minded, shine a light on your fixed mindset beliefs. Dweck coaches us with these questions:

What happens when our fixed-mindset “persona” shows up—the character within who warns us to avoid challenges and beats us up when we fail at something? How does that persona make us feel? What does it make us think and how does it make us act? How do those thoughts, feelings, and actions affect us and those around us? And, most important, what can we do over time to keep that persona from interfering with our growth…? How can we persuade that fixed-mindset persona to get on board with the goals that spring from our growth mindset?

Beware of constant judgment; it’s a sign of having a fixed mindset. Dweck writes,

The fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is focused on judging: “This means I’m a loser.” “This means I’m a better person than they are.” “This means I’m a bad husband.” “This means my partner is selfish.”

Giving Up a Sense of Entitlement

Dweck has observed, “Many people with the fixed mindset think the world needs to change, not them. Thus, “they feel entitled to something better—a better job, house, or spouse.” They think that “the world should recognize their special qualities and treat them accordingly.”

Are you willing to change your mindset? If so, you will see the world differently.

You begin to consider the idea that some people stand out because of their commitment and effort. Little by little you try putting more effort into things and seeing if you get more of the rewards you wanted.

Yet, life doesn’t come with a guarantee:

Although you can slowly accept the idea that effort might be necessary, you still can’t accept that it’s no guarantee. It’s enough of an indignity to have to work at things, but to work and still not have them turn out the way you want—now, that’s really not fair. That means you could work hard and somebody else could still get the promotion. Outrageous.

Over time, further changes occur:

You begin to enjoy putting in effort and…you begin to think in terms of learning…

As you become a more growth-minded person, you’re amazed at how people start to help you, support you. They no longer seem like adversaries out to deny you what you deserve.

Dweck’s theory can be applied in business, in relationships, in sports, with your children, and with your students.

Soon you will break another windshield. Learn from your failure and your life will seem full of new possibilities.

More by Barry Brownstein